Before Adult Swim minced sketch comedy to hideous, fantastic shards of antagonism, a benign surrealism pervaded the 1990s. From the The Kids in the Hall and Jim Carrey to Conan O’Brien and the Farrelly brothers, the period was marked by juvenile non-sequitors and the invasion of the three-dimensional world by cartoon characters such as Ace Ventura. It was the decade of sanitized, "offbeat" subcultures gaining a foothold in mainstream culture. Despite a saturation of sex, most of the material was pre-adolescent, horny but terrified. Masturbating Bears rubbed shoulders with Hitler impersonators and an old lady anointed herself the Miles Davis of pants-pissing. It was a procession of non-threatening weird things and it was all very sweet but still felt the smallest bit transgressive.
One of the most maligned works of this ilk was Cabin Boy (1994) an ill-starred vehicle for Late Night-alum Chris Elliott. He plays Nathaniel Mayweather, a wealthy ingrate freshly graduated from an academy for “fancy lads,” who mistakenly joins the crew of a fishing boat, The Filthy Whore. The crusty seamen spare no opportunity to disparage his dainty manner and he can’t resist issuing haughty reminder of their low station. Cabin Boy is essentially a comedy of manners stripped of all psychosocial nuance, but it offers more pound-for-pound fun than many straighter comedies with far more on their minds. Mayweather is a one-note character in a one-joke film, but the whole thing is kept steadily afloat by a giddy charm shared by Elliott himself and the screenplay he co-wrote with director Adam Resnick.
The most enticing aspect of the film is a warm silliness broad enough to include a six-foot-tall pocket protector, a man-shark hybrid, and a Rankin/Bass-inspired ice monster. Resnick and his production designers accentuate the artifice of cardboard sets floating within a poorly-lit studio tank. Deliberately shoddy in-camera effects and an unintentional reliance on wide, multi-character shots replicate the visual texture of low-budget television. The whole endeavor seems like a joke, as though an already meager sketch failed to heed its three minute expiration. That may sound like a nightmarish way to spend one’s evening, but Cabin Boy’s sloppy whimsy is an undeniable joy.